By Wendell Maxey, Special to NBA.com
Posted Sep 11 2011 11:58AM
Soon after Timofey Mozgov was traded to the Denver Nuggets from the New York Knicks in the blockbuster deal featuring Carmelo Anthony last February, one of the first phone calls Mozgov received came from one of his family members -- his Russian basketball family.
Andrei Kirilenko spoke words of encouragement. Shaking off disappointment, Mozgov sat and listened.
The Utah Jazz forward and fellow countryman told the 24-year old rookie he shouldn't be upset. He told Mozgov to keep his head up. It's a conversation and lesson the 7-foot-1 center reminds himself of at EuroBasket and when looking back at his first season in the NBA.
"I just had to keep working a lot and not put my head down. That's what is most important and what I learned from the season," said Mozgov.
"Don't put my head down."
That wasn't an easy adjustment for a young man who went from a small defined role with the Knicks to barely sniffing the court in Denver.
"When I first came to the NBA, Coach (Mike) D'Antoni didn't use me too much when I started the season and then I played. And then when I got to Denver, Coach (George) Karl just wanted to look at what I can do in practice and then maybe five minutes in the game."
As a member of the Knicks, Mozgov appeared in 34 games with 14 starts, and averaged four points and three rebounds per game. When pressed to describe his role last season in Denver where Mozgov saw action in 11 games (six minutes per game) playing behind the Nuggets' frontcourt of Nene and Chris Anderson, Mozgov kept his answer as short as his playing time.
"I practiced. I was the practice guy."
Reports during the Anthony trade detailed how Mozgov's inclusion in the swap was a deal-maker for Denver. Instead it is Mozgov who left behind his first season in the NBA with shards of broken confidence.
"The last two seasons in the summers we've worked very hard with Timofey and he has given us a tremendous performance in EuroBasket and the World Championships. He justifiably became a very attractive candidate for the NBA as a result," said head coach David Blatt, who has coached Mozgov since 2009 for the Russian National Team.
"The fact that he didn't play a lot this year brought him back to me at square one. I didn't have the same Timofey as I did when we started the summer."
Saturday night in Vilnius, Lithuania, Mozgov showed that practice makes perfect.
Behind Mozgov's 19 points, five rebounds and three blocks, Russia extended their winning streak in the tournament to seven games with an 83-67 win over Greece.
"He had to work very hard and we had to work very hard to get him back to where he was. It's a little bit later than I would have liked. Now he is the same high-level guy that we sent to the league last year," Coach Blatt continued.
"I hope he's that player for the rest of the tournament. And when he goes back to the league I hope he gets the chance to play and he won't come back to me next year where he was at the beginning of the summer."
Blatt shoved aside questions that Mozgov's development reflected a mental hurdle Mozgov had to overcome. For Blatt, getting into the game and actually playing is the lone way to boost a player's confidence.
"You can not become a better player sitting on the bench watching the game and waiving a towel. You just can't," he explained.
"If you don't play you go backwards. It's like being on a train and the train is moving forward, but if you aren't on the train it's just moving forward and going right by you and it's hard to jump on that train."
If the NBA lockout lingers, the next stop after EuroBasket for Mozgov will be BC Khimki Moscow, whom he signed with in mid-July. It will be Mozgov's second stint with the team after helping Khimki reach the 2009 Eurocup title game and qualify for the Euroleague for the first time.
"I already signed with Khimki, but I hope the season in the NBA starts on time and then I can go back to Denver, but if the lockout is long, the best way for me to be in shape is by playing," said Mozgov.
Until then, it's on to the quarter final round in Kaunas, Lithuania where Mozgov can once again take a step forward from being "the practice guy" to "the man" for Team Russia.
"There's been a lot of negative talk about him from the critics -- he can't do this, he can't do that -- and he's proving to everyone that he is the right guy for us. We can rely on him in crunch moments and I think he just needed some confidence," Andrei Kirilenko said of Mozgov.
"He has that confidence right now."
Wendell Maxey is a freelance writer based in Germany.